Monday, October 15, 2007

Ed Harris

Here's a funny video produced by a sketch group I direct. It's a called "Ed Harris"
Check it out.

And this is one of the things I did last week in LA. By calling Ron Paul a "longshot candidate" it apparently was wildly controversial. I'll try to stay away from statements like "Looks like November is the month after October" or "Soap is a good thing to use to clean yourself."

Rules for Saying Goodbye

Sometimes, maybe sometimes when you are sort of stuck in the middle of a biography about Napoleon, a great book falls into your lap. Not necessarily the greatest book ever written, but the right book at the right time. That's what Rules for Saying Goodbye was for me.

I got it by accident. I had dinner with my friend Nick and he had played tennis with the author and showed me her book and said I could borrow it. I did. I opened it on the plane home and finished it by the time we landed.

Rules for Saying Goodbye is a coming of age story that spans the author's adolescence through her late twenties and follows her dream to be a writer, her disappointments in romance, and the way we grow up these days: slowly.

Like Him Again, Her Again, Him Again... etc etc, it's intelligent and funny, about an intelligent woman trying to make a creative life, or simply a life, without really being sure how to hurdle the obstacles to what might be adulthood, or a fuller understanding of yourself. This journey, I agree, always seems to get a little lost in the tension between possibility and daily life.

Also, it's got a hilarious mother-daughter relationship. If everyone keeps writing about their hilarious nutty mothers I am going to run out of my own hilarious nutty mother material. Although, I also have a sneaking suspicion it will just keep coming.

I bet this book is marketed as chick-lit, which is too bad, because novels about boys growing up aren't just dude-lit, and just because women also have stories about drinking too much and bartending when you're supposed to be writing a novel and friendships that grow and change and people you maybe decide to love for the wrong reasons, doesn't mean that only girls will like it.

There is no shoe shopping in this book.

There is a great, short chapter about walking in a snowstorm with one of her boyfriends named Henry that recalls something I've talked about a lot with my friend Leah - those moments, those conversations that change everything in an instant or two, and it certainly takes time to catch up on what they meant or what got decided without you realizing you'd decided anything. Sometimes, when we're recounting these to each other, we wish we were wearing a wire, so we can go back and see the story in it that isn't the one we're trying to tell.

Boyfriends are not the center of this book. They are a part of it, but the book is so much more about the protagonist than about the boyfriends - they are gently sketched out, and they play a part in her decisions, but she's really only free to be herself after the biggest heartbreak.

She recuperates, oddly enough, in Northern Lower Michigan, where I've spent plenty of time sitting staring at a lake trying to figure out what happened.

It made me cry a little bit, which was hysterical, because I was sitting next to an NFL referee on the plane and every so often when I was getting all teary eyed I'd pause for a minute and turn to him and say something like, "I've never totally understood pass interference" and he'd look at me like "This poor insane girl reading next to me should just watch Evan Almighty and chill the fuck out."

At the end of the book, she moves to LA, and, presumably plays tennis with Nick.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I wrote that entry about the news before the Cleveland shooting. It's so sad and frightening how often this is happening. I've also noticed that shootings happen and almost no news station brings up the issue of gun control. Are we that scared to have this debate? It's happening every day!

I'm A Real Grown-Up Commuter

On the drive to work the past couple days (yes, the drive to work! with my coffee!) I noticed that there apparently was a gas station of the future. It's a BP project and here's a picture or two to show you. I did not take these pictures. Someone else did. I found them by googling "la future bp gas station." Behold: the power of the internet.

Many people are incensed by this, seeing it as another specious bp promise in their marketing campaign that paints them as environmentally conscious when the opposite is true. If you're interested, there's 100,000 angry bloggers out there with lots of information.

I have not read anything that isn't news in the last two days. Or watched anything that isn't news. I've primarily been watching the cable news networks. If you never want to watch the news again, just fill in these following categories with items from your imagination:


Hilarious Animal is occasionally augmented with "What were they thinking?" style segments that focus on local-dust ups.
Oh, and sometimes the Shooting segment is replaced with WEATHER THAT KILLS. Just make up some interesting things and voila! the news!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"The Odyssey Years"

It's nice that David Brooks calls the period between adolescence and settling down "the odyssey years." My Mom has some other choice terms for it.

It's rare that I like his columns, but I did like this phrase:

"Moreover, surveys show that people living through these years have highly traditional aspirations (they rate parenthood more highly than their own parents did) even as they lead improvising lives."

Improvising lives is right. Har.

The article is here:

Sunday, October 07, 2007

I'm Here

There are lots of roads and streets with names that I recognize from rap songs. At the car rental place, the gentleman - a chivalrous type named Doug, was being kind of lazy and didn't want to track down the type of cheap-o car I ordered.

"Do you want an upgrade to something with automatic windows?" he inquired.
"No," I said. "I'm on a budget."

After I had finished shape-shifting into a midwestern Mother out to prove to the world that SHE COULD MAKE IT ON HER OWN, Doug tried once more.

"Are you sure? You don't want automatic windows and a CD player?"
"I am sure, Doug. Thank you."


Doug looked dejected and peeked out into the parking lot.

"You want a free upgrade?"
"Yes, please and thank you, Doug."

nb: SEE?

And that is how I came to be driving a periwinkle Hybrid-SUV down the broad streets.

American Airlines also lost my luggage, so I am now in LA with some decidedly uncool clothes to match my uncool maternal attitude. I dragged a friend who came to take me to dinner to a GAP and bought things so I could at least claim to be quasi-respectable while still wearing slightly smelly jeans. And then we ate at Johnny Rockets. LA! You so crazy!

No books in this post: fie on you. I read the entire Sunday Times which is like a book. Based on that reading I have three new opinions:

1. I like the hyphen, even though I don't know how to use it properly.
Did you know that a slippery-eel salesman is someone who sells you slippery eels? Yet, a slippery eel salesman is the guy who takes your cash and slithers away. Thank you, hyphen.

2. I like Manny Ramirez

3. The stories in Sunday Styles about middle aged people finding unexpected love in their condo building make me itchy. Especially when they say things like "I knew he was a good kisser." Also when they have weird New York professions like "stock photographer" and "organizational expert."

And, really, please read Frank Rich's column. Clarence Thomas is insane like origami.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Go West, Young (Wo)man

Tomorrow I set off for a trip to Los Angeles for a freelancing gig that is also a job interview. I'm a little scared. I'm good at traveling alone - I've done it quite a bit and I am also pretty good at traveling with eight people. What scares me the most is the symbolic significance of the possibilities this sort of trip contains - moving. Moving west.

In high school I had a brilliant English teacher. She stood, terrifying, brilliant at the front of our American literature classroom and dictated to us the significance of our national mythologies. One of her favorite idioms was the following "to the East, moral demise, economic rise. West, economic demise, moral rise." I think this dichotomy was based primarily on two books The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. It was a compelling vision: that your place in America and your direction signified something about your life. Something, in our individualistic culture, so profoundly deterministic. You go here, you become this.

And it might have been wrong, or be wrong, because that canny epigram doesn't acknowledge the change that Hollywood has wrought on our understanding of east and west. We're not the Joads, most of us, just trying to find a living. We're wanna-be actors, searching for fame, fortune, and maybe a spot in the "Stars Are Just Like Us" section of US Weekly

It's a midwestern idea, too, at heart, quoted by a midwestern woman who made, as we found out after her death, a profoundly Gatsby-like transition of her own. But the root of the idea is that we are neither east nor west. To her, we start, somewhere in the middle, in the heartland, and our coasts represent different flaws and strengths of our national identity.

I love Chicago. I've lived here my entire life, in the city, leaving for only a short while for college (met the east: moral demise? unsure. economic rise? Well, let's say I haven't fulfilled my potential on that front. Transformative, however).

Chicago represents the engine of this country. A big messy engine that propels you or compels you. In William Cronon's excellent history of the city, Nature's Metropolis he describes how the flow of commodities into Chicago changed the very nature of urban life. Wheat and pigs and lumber were never so fascinating. His major argument is that the Turner thesis - the idea that as long as the frontier was open, we had a sense of destiny and that the frontier created our national character - is fundamentally untrue. The way that cities processed the goods of the frontier decided how the frontier worked.

I'm not sure, though, that a sound national history can quite replace a starry-eyed national myth. The West, whatever it is, is still the west.

And moving still represents change. I'm not moving yet, so this is wholly speculative, but even thinking of it makes me, well, think of what that change might be. This is certainly not the conscious change that Jay Gatsby made, or the reluctant change that occurs when forces beyond your control push you forward (or so I think.)

In northern Michigan, I sometimes feel most at home, when it is dark and always cold on a summer night and you can stroll up a dirt or gravel road and see the stars or sit on a dock that stretches into black water and reflects the lights of home around the lake. That region sent their lumber down the lake to Chicago, tons and tons of it from the great north woods. There is a small island called South Manitou, with the best natural bay in that part of the lake, and the steamers would stop to refuel or take shelter from the storms. It is sandy and the forests are sparse around the edges because the trees were harvested for wood for the ship ovens. There is an old growth forest there, where it takes at least five ten year olds to wrap their arms around the biggest oak.

One of my favorite books is For Kings and Planets by an author named Ethan Canin. It tells the story of a midwesterner going east for college, and his friend, an easterner, running west. I think of it often because sometimes I feel like Orno and Marshall are the possibilities inside me. The struggle for what sort of life makes you happy: or the simple evolution of one that does.

The tone of that book is beautiful too, because it talks so much about the way light can tell you something. And in every part of the country I've been in, the way the light hits it at some time of day tells you the most about it. A city shining in the early morning is the promise of a city, not the humdrum dirt of noon. It's the city as you want to see it. A stormy frightening sky in the north woods is thrilling and humbling and exciting and being scared by rain when you're little is as exciting as watching the lightning crack when you're older. The flat gray sky of lower Michigan, the plain easy sunlight. The first day of spring in Chicago when the shadows get sharp.

I don't know who I want to turn into.

This is a picture someone took of a Chicago sky from my car on the way back from a good trip. It's a prairie sky, a lake storm, the middle of where I've been.

Friday, October 05, 2007

An Excuse and An Idea

Hello! It has been a long time. It's October now. You can always tell the changing of the seasons in Chicago, because you reluctantly take out the AC unit you only installed in August and the next day is eighty degrees.

You might think "I bet she hasn't been reading any books! What a terrible book blogger!" and then you flounce off and whisper more untoward statements to your friends, all of whom, apparently, are just crazy about book blogs and hold them to insanely high standards. Of course that doesn't happen, because people who care about book blogs aren't real. They're just in the imaginations of book bloggers. That world would be like "The Hills" for Iowan librarians.

I say that without having ever seen "The Hills." I know a lot about it though because those people have invaded my celebrity magazines and taken page space away from romances I am truly interested in: Brangelina and all those kids, and is Jake Gylenhaal single and will he remember that once in 2002 we talked on the phone for 32 seconds?

But the excuse is that I HAVE read a book. Or, almost all of it, but I left it in the van and have failed to pick it up from the charitable gentleman who rescued it from amidst the old newspapers, fast food wrappers, and Settlers of Catan debris. It is a biography about Napoleon. It's fun. Sometimes I need to read non-fiction because I find myself getting too emotionally upset. Napoleon can certainly be upsetting with some sundry assassinations and censorship and getting to be a real cranky tyrant, but the author talks about Napoleon's love life 2% of the time. Modern fiction tends to skew to discussions of complicated relationships like 50% of the time. So, it's Napoleon or maybe another book on China for me for a while.

Here's the idea:

In comedy, we like our protagonists to be the everyman. In drama, we'd rather watch rich people.


I have to go back to the laundromat.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Him Her Him Again The End Of Him

The title of this novel by Patricia Marx doesn't exactly trip off the tounge. I referred to it, as I was reading it, as "the orange book by that funny lady who wrote for the Lampoon about the guy." A big improvement, eh?

Him Her Him Again, etc etc, is the story of the narrator's obsession with her first serious boyfriend, Eugene Obello. They meet in Cambridge, England, date for a little bit, but most of the novel is about their relations after Eugene has left her for another woman, married and had a baby. This makes the book sound very serious and heart-wrenching. It is not. In fact, it is very very funny.

This novel perplexed a lot of reviewers who felt moved to write comments like, "Why should we care about Eugene and the narrator? He's a total jerk and we can't believe she still likes/and or obsesses over him?"

There is certainly a school of comedy and comedic writing that believes in grounding the material in an emotionally real circumstance. The Lampoon style is not that way - it emphasizes the joke - the artful construction of the joke. In some senses, the joke in the abstract: without using a reference in the punchline or the set-up, without alluding to a current event how do you just make a joke?

Marx is using the format of the resurgent chick-literature in part to satirize this genre of writing wherein successful women search in a bumbling manner for romance and lots of silly things happen to them that you can totally relate to. Bridget Jones was the catalyst for this movement: and that book was hilarious and managed to capture our narcissistic obsessions about finding a relationship that meets our modern demands. The books that have followed Bridget Jones in an effort to capture the large market of women who like love stories that are like their own but with happier endings, have left some of the complexities of character behind and all appear to have put a lot more shopping in. Their covers in bookstores always have titles like "Shopping For Mr. Right" and then an illustration of legs and high heels in bright colors. On the back the description begins "Kelly Marksville thought she had it all: a job in graphic design, a loft in Chealsea and a great boyfriend until blah blah blah blah" - boyfriend leaves (jerk!) she gets over him, turns out graphic design wasn't it, moves, new guy, she starts a store. End. A diluted, sad, place for what could be a generally good, funny genre.

Marx doesn't do that large journey: this is just the focused story of a love affair, told like a friend was telling it to you except with many more hilarious observations and asides. And the narrator is a total neurotic and afraid she is a failure, something I can always relate to.

My favorite moments included the recounting of a pitch session at a faux-SNL type show called "Taped But Proud," and the following few quotes. I'm paraphrasing but bear with me, "Your Mother is right said my grandmother and also tell her I've always hated the yellow table in her front hall." "Good news, he said. I knew enough at this time to know that good news for someone is bad news for someone else. Usually me." And my favorite, "The comment came out the way I meant it: the truth hidden within a joke."


It's fun. It's a short read. Yes, the lack of empathy you feel for the characters does start to slow it down in the last third of the book, but read it as a comic piece and enjoy it.

Fun Picture!

Finally, what you've always wanted: the picture of the cover of the book. And, maybe less rambling about adulthood. I must admit, I felt a little preachy writing the last entry. Or like one of those creepy self-styled moral authority figures. I don't want to be one of those, especially since the public inevitably discovers they sell porn or engage in other vices with wild abandon.

I certainly don't live anything nearly resembling what typically constitutes an adult lifestyle: no settled job, no settled family, no work outfits.

But there's different ways to grow up -inside and outside of our social understanding of guys in suits. I doubt I'll ever really mature into the 20th century concept.

Enough about that.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What's An Adult?

Continuing the query that Barbarians at the Gate brought me to - the NY Times published a very interesting Op-Ed piece last week comparing the idea of an adolescent risk-taking mind-set, with the actual risks taken by adults.

It appears that although society likes to tag adolescent brains as underdeveloped and prone to making stupid decisions, it's the current crop of adults that tend to be making super stupid decisions. Of course, some of stupid decisions I made as an adolescent are things that tend not to pop up as statistics "64% of adolescent girls confess to stupidly telling their crush that they liked them liked them," "Thirty percent of adolescent girls think it is a good idea to serve your younger sisters non-alcoholic beer but tell them its real" but the matter of the instinct to be stupid is with all of us.

So, what makes you a grown up? Your mistakes have more serious consequences? Your choices roil a broader group than your grade? If we're all still dicking around in middle age, then we're all still dicking around like teenagers but with more money and nicer beer.

We all like to watch TV where people act inappropriately -for laughs or for drama. I'd argue that the behavior that makes compelling TV doesn't really scream "adult." Like, do we really want our Doctors banging each other as much as they do in Greys Anatomy? I vote no: I want a doctor who is not interested in boning the other doctor operating on me. Dawson and Joey are not doctors so they can bone all they want.

I think many Americans want our life to be more like our media, even if that includes wild misbehavior. Frat house style partying. Getting in relationship drama.

Is this stuff unavoidable, or are we looking for it? Or, does it, in the current climate, just seem like the norm?

I have wondered -and worried - if all my novel reading has skewed my perspective on my own interpretation of my life's narrative: am I looking for plot points and moments (maybe even subconsciously) that occur in books? I think it's completely possible that if I watched a ton of TV and movies, my expectations and judgements about my personal narrative would change. I think we use these artistic mediums as a foil for our experience.

What does this say about all those Barbarians? If our goals and foibles as adolescents and adults are not dissimilar, I think it makes those Barbarians just like the rest of us, but with crazy money that effects thousands of lives, and, therefore, should create more of a moral imperative to be responsible, sober, reflective adults.

And those adjectives are boring. What's on TV?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Barbarians at the Gate: High School on Wall Street!

I apologize in advance for lack of fun picture. I am on a tenuous internet connection. I will try to add one later.

Barbarians at the Gate is the story of the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco in the late 80's: a time when the roaring 80s were cooling to that nice simmering recession that engulfed my middle school years. It is a fascinating book -probably one of my favorite non-fiction reads of all time.

I picked it up, thinking I would learn a little bit about business and how investment banking and corporate finance works. Because, you know, my sweet $91.76 in savings might allow me to buy a share of something. In the end, I learned a little bit about the quantitative aspects of a transaction such as this one, and multitudes more about the human behavior that drives financial transaction in the rarefied world of Wall Street.

I like nice things. I enjoy things like wine and vacations and traveling. I like nice clothes. Someday I'd really like to own a piece of furniture that isn't from college or was handed down to me by a former roommate. But, fundamentally, I think I'm pretty naive, because, yo, these "barbarians" love money. They sure love money. They love money so much they invent kinds of money that seem to have no tangible relation to econcomic production. It's like the invisible hand suddenly popped up and said, "I also possess an invisible wallet!"

Leveraged buyouts, I gleaned, are a financial tool that management uses when it wants to buy a company back from the public domain. They are so expensive, however, that the purchase of said company inevitably results in massive debt, that the new owners pay off by selling off company assets, leaving the company smaller and "leaner" (argue proponents.) In the case of a company like RJR Nabisco, incredible profits can be realized in this sale/purchase. The process drives up the share price, and the sale of company assets can create more profit. In addition to whatever profits the new owner accrues, the whole process of an LBO can be so complicated that it generates millions of dollars in fees for the consultants, banks, advisers, lawyers, and the literal reams of people that appear on the margins of these sorts of deals.

That sounds dry, but the story of how that process unfolded at RJR Nabisco is wildly compelling. Multiple groups attempted to accquire the maker or Camel Lights, assured by the tobacco profits that it was a stable purchase. The negotiations and bids were complicated by a number of interpersonal relationships, grudges, status issues, hubris, and posturing. My favorite financial love-triangle relation in the book was how the chairman of RJR was buddies with the chairman of American Express, who controlled a financial bank, Shearson Lehman Hutton, that was attempting to help the chairman purchase the company. Meanwhile, the Amex chairman's wife is friendly with their main rival and they call and talk on the phone all the time. Also, they own a horse together.

It made me wonder what it really means to be an adult, because most of this behavior in the book, and many of the actions people took were driven by conversations that I heard on the bus coming back from sporting events in high school.

Typical Barbarians Line: Cohen was shocked at the news. How could Kravis betray him like this? He resolved to increase the bid.

Typical High School after a Field Hockey Game Line: Marissa was super upset at the news. How could Claire so coldly snub her? She resolved not to bring any Zima to the party.

The difference is that these adult males are fighting over money - which is just a token in their larger board game of who appears to be a mover and shaker on "the Street" - and the high school girls are at least totally fighting about a party, which is their status symbol to be a mover and shaker in the junior locker area.

(I am very sleepy right now. I will continue later.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Preppin' For Fall

Today was one of those strange and lovely days in life that seemed marked with a theme, a sense of literary continuity that runs throughout the day, recognized and unrecognized, playing itself throughout. I may have read too many books, but I have those days - infrequent but often enough, when everything is an allusion. Today it was fall.

It started easily - I woke up, and through a violent nose-blowing in the morning, realized that the rain yesterday had broken my hayfeverish dreams. My eyes weren't itchy, my throat was clear, and, best of all, the air outside was crisp. The Chicago dog days of summer, humidity and goldenrod were taking their first step of retreat. Fall! It felt like fall!

When I think of fall I have an idealized version of myself I like to picture: it is something like "carefree, fun, young woman on a bike with cool hair and a nice outift." This is sincerely stupid, but imagine something like this in the late sixties - with a nice bag, maybe she's going to write some poetry somewhere, or take a history class, or just be in a cafe and be doing something productive and cool. In New England, maybe. (This is a cool vision unless I got it from the movie Love Story, in which case I am so screwed.) This young woman, I am not. I get on my bike with a helmet and huge backpack, sweating and grimacing as I slop around to rehearsals. Nothing charming in the bag: just-in-case allergy medicine, pens, gum, a book in case I get bored, a stick of deodorant because of the biking, lots of unorganized sketch scripts, carmex. I am not crisp clean unburdened back-to-school girl, pretty and having a great soundtrack. I am regular mess me.

That reality does not prevent me, though, from on the first day of fall, trying to seize my chance at the dream. Why this dream, though?

I remembered while perusing my friend Dorothy's blog and she mentioned reading the book Prep. This vision of girl on bike is singularly preppy. Am I a total preppy person? Maybe? In the midwest you can only sort of do preppy things. People here do not play squash unless they moved here. People here rarely go to real sleep away boarding school. Until J.Crew became a store not a catalogue, no one had whales on their clothes. Sure, I went to a college with plenty of preppies, but true prep has the lingering scent of a lifetime at vacations on the east coast and a disregard for things that are important to me, like Big Ten football and eating a lot.

I blame the books.

I biked to Border's after lunch, looking for something to take with me this weekend, and they had the new Curtis Sittenfeld (author of Prep) novel on a table with lots of other books like Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and something about a headmaster and such and such. It was, without even being labeled as such, a table of ultimate prep: boarding schools.

Disclaimer: I did go to a private day school.
Other disclaimer: it ain't nothing like a boarding school - I realized this when I visited Choate a few years ago on tour.

This body of literature has singularly fascinated me - and many of us, I assume, seeing that the people familiar with these books and things like Harry Potter which get a lot of material from the boarding school mapping - did not go to a boarding school. We must all be wondering what the hell goes on there.

And those books tell you: phonies and snogging and sweaters and mandatory fall sports and betrayal and sex. Maybe it's the sex that gets us. I skimmed a few pages in the books and realized: I don't want to read about these people right now. These tumultuous teenage days in the crux of privilege - no thank you. I do not care who loves who. I do not care about curfew. I do not care about coming to terms with your identity because you have some overbearing father who doesn't want you to be an actor.

Okay, I also blame The Dead Poets Society.

So I bought Barbarians at the Gate and, unwittingly, consigned myself to reading a book about where the preppies go: Wall Street.

Those preppies! Those ridiculous problems! Those social mores! Brendan Fraiser in School Ties and leafy changing color trees around an athletic field!

I went to rehearsal.

Biking home, I stopped by a soccer game that a friend was coaching and lost all claim to my scorn. Sitting on the sideline on a nice fall day promptly gave me every sensory input I needed to be struck with how life has changed - the kind of nostalgia where you know you don't want to BE a seventh grade soccer player again, but maybe nostalgia for the kind of person you were, or the innocence you had. The kind of nostalgia that makes you want to write terrible poetry. The kind of nostalgia that reminds you what it felt like to go back to school: the slimmest chance for a new start, a new year, a moment to be the bicycle riding girl.

Maybe, that longing for childhood or innocence or tradition represents more broadly the kind of voyeuristic nostalgia we get from prep lit: a quaint bildungsroman wrapped in rich people. Rich people who do crazy shit.

Or maybe the prep lit is all romance: the romance of the WASP culture of the American 1950s. Which is a strange thing to idolize and return to, because that culture was repressive (and much of the prep lit reminds us of that) - or, really, maybe, because it gave us something to rebel against and take the full measure of ourselves.

Possibly, it is both. Possibly (and this is a NY Times editorial David Brooks type stretch so hate me for it as I dislike him) - these books are back because they are simpler and the world now seems more complicated. Now punch me in the face.

I went home, feeling sweet and sweaty. And then I drank a Miller Lite.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

On Chesil Beach

This is an excellent novel. I've gone back and forth on McEwan - I loved Atonement, but really disliked Amsterdam. On Chesil Beach, however, is a masterful accomplishment with McEwan displaying his passion for juxtaposing the personal and social mores that bring us into conflict with ourselves and others. It's just beautiful and it's heart-rending.

For those of you not up on the plot, here's a brief summary: it's 1962. Two newlyweds, both virgins, approach their wedding night with mixed desires and fears brought on by their social milleu and own neurosis. As their marital union approaches we learn about the history of the relationship up to that very moment.

For those of you who wonder why I am not properly underlining the titles of these novels: I can't with this browser and I am nervous about downloading Mozilla Firefox onto my overtaxed and finicky hard drive.

I am going to write more about this novel very soon, but I want to hold off for a little bit.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities: Not Boring!

Lists, take a break. We've got some head-rollin', Bastille-stormin' action to discuss. It's A Tale of Two Cities! And it's awesome!

For a long time, A Tale of Two Cities in particular, and perhaps Dickens in general, has represented, in curricular battles across the country, the sort of novel that should be replaced by something more contemporary, more diverse, more timely for the lives of students today. Every time I saw it I immediately thought "boring." It just represented boring - something you maybe had to read in 8th or 9th grade, or you missed it because your school decided that it was just too boring and old white man-ish. I didn't have to read it. No one ever made me read Dickens.

And I'm not going to say that it's a damn shame and enter the politically charged battles over what classroom literature should include and exclude...but it's a damn shame. Because Dickens is not an erudite, distracted, or aristocratic writer. He is a masterful social satirist, ingenious at character, and satisfying and exciting at plot in a manner that is hard to find today.

I literally stumbled upon it, coming home very late from a party. I had my 3am pizza and I wanted something to read. Normally I would choose an US magazine at a time like this so I could ogle the lives of those accursed slaves to fame and sort of get interested by what is in their shopping carts....I digress. Dickens was sitting on my bedroom floor. So I started to read and realized - this book is good. When I started again the next morning, I realized it was great.

A Tale of Two Cities deals with the time before the French Revolution in Paris and London, switching back and forth between sets of interconnected characters - connected, in that delightfully Dickensian way, by fateful ties that unfold as chapters progress, giving us new insight into what is going to happen. There's a little bit of a love story, sure, but the love story is perfunctory. It goes to the sweetest, purest characters in the novel, but our interest, like Dickens, lies with the scallywags, the unfortunate, the flawed.

Dickens is the consummate observer of our human behaviors and patterns and reserves no scorn for our bloodthirsty impulses. Part of the genuis of the novel is how he shifts between sympathies for the French underclass, yet slowly turns on them when their tyranny proves to be no more enlightend than that of the Bourbons. Here his the ironic summation of a prosecutor's closing argument, "that they, being a responsible jury, must positively find the prisoner guilty and make an end of him, whether they liked it or not. That they could never lay their heads upon their pillows; they they never could toleratre the idea of their wives laying their heads upon their pillows; that, they could never endure the notion of their children laying their heads upon their pillows; in short that there never could be, for them or theirs, any laying of heads upon pillows at all, unless the prisoner's head was taken off."


Finishing A Tale of Two Cities also led me to crack open my old European History textbook and try to remember something about the mess that was the French Revolution. Reading that chapter (along with struggling past marginal notes and some really committed underlining) made me realize that this is also a fairly radical, committed and populist take on events. The book, as textbooks are, was dry and full of sentences like "the position of the French underclass is understated compared to the influence the bourgeoise brought to bear on events."

A Tale of Two Cities is full of anger, venom, and a barely sustained passion in the face of change. It is redemptive and terrifying, Hobbesian and hopeful.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Beginnings of Lists

Three is a start, although I am apparently missing the point of a top ten list. "What's on that top ten list?" "Oh, you know, just my unranked three."

But it's my blog and I can fail to live up to my own expectations if I want to.

So, three to start:

1. Darcy and Elizabeth, Pride and Predjudice

Like, duh! Sure, Colin Firth's smoldering sexpot eyes in the BBC adaptation helped this romance leap into the hearts and VCRs of women worldwide. Still, the romance has a merit of its own.

It's easy to forget that in the book the outcome seems uncertain because the D/E courtship certainly helped establish the romantic comedy genre of "hate at first sight, then fall in love later but only after some serious issues and the guy totally comes back and gets the girl so she doesn't seem too undignified, but then she totally apologizes for thinking he was a brute or a snob or whatever his deal is when it turns out he is sensitive and so much fun all the time."

The genre has made our expectations of eventual reconciliation and romance somewhat less than suspenseful, but in the novel it's not that simple and Darcy and Elizabeth overcome some genuinely difficult differences to establish their luuuuuvvvvv. They hate each other. Darcy does a genuinely uncharitable, (and, to Elizabeth -very bad) thing, and then they
both change - independently, but because of what they've confronted because of the other.

Which, as I re-read this, makes it seem so pragmatic and mature. There are sparks. Big sparks. Don't believe me? Have seven hours to spare? I have a BBC mini-series that will put your bloomers in a bunch.

And, ha! I am out of writing time! So there is just ONE!

Here are some more as memory creaks into gear.

2. Oliver and Susan, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
3. Gabriel/Gretta/Michael, "The Dead" in Dubliners
4. Jack Burden and Anne Stanton, All The King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren

I didn't say they had to be happy.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

First Countdown! How exciting!

First countdown: 10 Best Literary Romances.

I am not going to write the top ten list right now, because I have to think about it for a little bit and get my horrible memory into gear. I do have a horrible memory - to be honest, that's one of the reasons I've started this blog. I find these days that I can't remember the endings to books I read, or even important plot points in some of them. I get nervous about this. Very nervous. Nervous enough to start a blog to remind me of what I've read.

I do not know a lot about memory, but in my unscientific conception of its operation, I've always sort of assumed that one had a set amount and cramming in new knowledge pushed out older knowledge, or just things that your brain currently wasn't using. This is probably absolutely wrong. I may have read somewhere that it is wrong, but, well, I can't remember. I've read a lot of books in my lifetime, so it's probably totally normal that I don't have complete recall of them, but I wish I did.

If you are reading, though - please start proffering candidates for the top ten list. And this need not be an academic endeavor - sure, Romeo and Juliet are practically a genre within themselves, but that doesn't mean they have to make the list. A good argument as to why they shouldn't make it is just as interesting.

One argument to that effect might be that Romeo was a total narcissist just looking for some drama and lovin. At the beginning of the play he's pining after Rosalie. Rosalie! She didn't go for him and she turned out just fine. Two kids, a house in Winnetka, and uninspiring marriage to a perfectly nice project manager at Montague Mortgage Financing. They're happy, though. Lately they've been learning to play tennis together. She owns a store where you paint ceramic mugs and plates. And when you bring up the subject of Romeo...well, she's glad she didn't go there.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Books Like Sports

If you watch sports shows, and sometimes I do, when I am at bars, you may have also noticed that a hallmark of any good sports show is the countdown: best last-minute touchdowns, worst (and thereby the best) sports blunders, top ten plays of the night, etc etc. These are fun lists for multiple reasons. One, because they come with a video highlight. Two, because they are the fruit of many a good conversation: why did such and such get #1 when everyone knows blah blah blah got it. The third reason the lists are good would be something like "it helps reinforce our collective memory of important moments in sports history." This reason would be valid if I could have used an example instead of saying "such and such" and "blah blah blah."

Why don't we talk about books the way we talk about sports? Probably because book people think any list is reductive. Or, when a list DOES come out, like the Modern Library's list of the best 100 books of the twentieth century, everyone gets upset because that list is seems to miss out on the point of books, which is that each one can hold especial importance to us regardless of certain literary features or merit. People also get upset because no one has ever read Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowery.

I propose this: let's be stupid and make some lists. And then let's argue about them over beers. But not cool beers. Crap beers like Miller Lite. And let's wear a lot of merchandise that displays our loyalty. Instead of a Cubs t-shirt that says something like "The Cardinals take it in their Pujols" we can wear jerseys that support Austen and slam Bronte. Like "Your crazy wife has a purple face." SLAM! Take that Bronte.

Next post: some countdown ideas.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Oracle Bone

This is an Oracle Bone, a tool of divination used by emperors during the Shang dynasty in China. They would heat turtle shells or ox scapula until it cracked and diviners would read the cracks to answer the emperor's queries. Later, the question, and perhaps the answer, would be inscribed on the bone. There is something poetic and ominous in the queries and answers - Hessler cites the following common phrase: In the next ten days there will be no disaster.

Divining China's Future From Its Past

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

If you're familiar with my previous blog effort (Summer '04 - remember when?) you know that I went to China. The trip to China got me very interested in China, because, frankly, I knew almost nothing about it. I remembered learning a little bit about it in freshman and sophmore year world history courses but I knew almost nothing about the country's absolutely fascinating modern history.

So, I've started reading a lot about China. When I am not reading fiction, I am probably reading non-fiction about China. I don't know why. I may never live there. I feel like I'm the equivalent of the 18th/19th century Brit who just couldn't get enough American travelogues, deToqueville, etc. "My goodness, as a consequence of democracy their manners are frightfully informal! Ahem! More Tea!" It's armchair sociology - trying to match up current behaviors and trends to historic or cultural origins. With China, everyone has a field day doing this, because China is really just entering the modern era, like, right now and it's so compelling to trace a theme of China's history - like, say, geographic isolation- and ascribe all your modern conclusions to it.

Peter Hessler's books (and articles in the New Yorker) are a fantastic introduction to China and to the frameworks through which we are trying to learn and understand China. He goes one better than that, though, by including, in all of his books, stories about his Chinese friends and students. So, in addition to the constructed narratives Westerners create to try to understand China, we get their stories. Rivertown, his first work, is a memoir about his time in the Peace Corps teaching English in a small city on the Yangtze. It's great, because as Hessler learns and acculturates himself, you, another ignorant laowei, journey with him and learn bit by bit.

Oracle Bones is just fantastic too. It combines three or four stories, really: the story of the discovery and excavation of the Shang dynasty Oracle Bones, the life of a preeminent scholar who wrote the groundbreaking study, stories of a Uighur immigrant to the US, and the narratives of Hessler's old students, now making lives for themselves in China's bustling and booming cities.

That was a dumb paragraph. But, I am going to try to make it less dumb. Also, in general, these post will probably be dumb for a while until I get in the habit of writing every day.

They won't let me insert another picture so I am going to make a new post.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Susan Minot -Evening

Synopsis: Upstairs, in a house in Cambridge, MA, a woman lies, dying of cancer, and remembering scenes from her life. Downstairs, her family and friends gather in the twilight of her life, trying to understand their mother's true self, which is complex and lyrical especially since no one uses quotation marks. In a studio apartment in Chicago, a young woman vacillates between crying about it and being sort of sweaty without air conditioning.

This is a beautiful book that deserves to be read in one mood. Pick it up on an evening (yes, evening!) twinged with a touch of heartbreak, a calm sunset, and a waft of nostalgia. Then finish it. Try not to stop and pick it up in the middle of the next day when you are feeling crabby and uncharitable to the dying woman.

If you read it in the first mood, you'll be touched by rememberance, youth, and the sense of irreprerable loss that marks even the fullest lives. If you read it in the second mood you may think nasty things like "I'm so sorry your life in Tuscany with hubbo #3 didn't live up to the romantic evening you shared with that total shithead."

So, I recommend it, under proper conditions of wealth and leisure. It's beautiful. It contains life, a real picture of a vibrant difficult life with some really nice vacation homes.

I also have six pages left to go, so maybe I'll be charmed back into the single tear weeping that made my first encounter so vibrant.

Blog intro bit: This is a blog where I am going to write about what I read. It's a summer project. Maybe when winter comes we can engage serious questions about the role of the critic and blogosphere and blah blah blah.

Tom Perrotta's Little Children.

A friend described the book to me as a slightly lighter version of the movie which was, according to him, "like someone was punching you in your cock over and over again." I have not seen the movie, because I haven't been itching to get punched in my metaphorical wang of late.

But, apparently, I still wanted to be mildly depressed. And that's what Little Children does so well: it mildly depresses you at the speed of a beach read. I started it at ten in the morning. At six at night, only eight mildly depressed hours later, including breaks to ride the train and eat a sandwich, I was done. Tom Perrotta has a gift for conveying character archetypes through the contemporary medium with which we judge each other: clothes, cars, collegiate extra-curriculars. As a result, you feel like you know these people and simultaneously feel completely estranged from them. It's Mary-Anne - the uptight neighborhood busybody, the former perfect type-A sorority woman, and without a single scrap of empaty. Even the female protagonist, Sarah (and let me tell you, it is creepy to read a novel where the protagonist shares your first name*) is quite precisely described as a woman launched into her femminine consciousness by the virtue of women's studies classes. She marries because she doesn't know what else to do with her life and is destined to live at odds with whatever true version of herself exists under the surface. Perrotta tells you all this stuff - but you just don't see it. Each character is carefully assembled to fulfill their narrative function, which makes them, in many ways, just lighter, more comedic and contemporary versions of the classic naturalistic protagonists. It's Madame Bovary with Cheerios - and to the credit of the author, quite consciously so.

The version of the book I read came with book club questions, which I found very funny since there was a book club about Madame Bovary in the book. What is that called? When a thing is in a thing? I used to know this word. Anyway, here are some of my book club questions for you.

1. Does eating a roast beef sandwich help or hurt your understanding of Todd and Sarah's relationship?
2. How does your current level of self-pity affect your attitude toward the characters in the book? Inverse? Direct?
3. Why is there a fish on the front of the book?

So, there you go, blog. We're up and running!

*Which, oddly enough, even with the popularity of my name, is rare. This book....Sarah Plain and Tall (not a fan of that title)....Sarah Bishop....